Beneath the barrels

The barrel-roof townhouses of River Park are Campbell’s soup cans, halved the long way, balanced on top of metal cubes two blocks from Southwest Washington’s Waterfront Metro station. They are called “houses” — because people live in them, and really, what else could they be called? — but they are architectural punch lines, visual acid trips, the left-behind parts of the secret UFO that docked down by the waterfront half a century ago and then flew away before anyone caught it on camera. The barrel-roof townhouses of River Park were —

“They were fantastic,” says Arthuryne Taylor. In the 1960s, she had come to Washington from Tennessee, where the houses had things like shutters and shingles. “I had never seen anything like them. They were cosmopolitan. Nashville was country. This was cosmopolitan.” She and her husband discovered the community through an open house. “I said, this is it.

On the day they moved into their house, the previous occupant gave Taylor a magazine, an artifact belonging to the house, which the occupant before that had, in turn, passed on to her. It’s the spring issue of “House and Home” from 1963, featuring a three-page spread on River Park, a new D.C. development. “Fresh shapes create a whole new atmosphere!” the headline reads.

One of the photographs shows Taylor’s house, or she thinks it does. It’s hard to tell because the barrel-roof townhouses of River Park all look exactly like one another and nothing like anything else in the city.

“I just thought they were fabulous,” Taylor says. She is in her 90s now. “It’s the new thing.”

She corrects herself: “At the time it was the new thing — not anymore.”

New things become old, and sometimes they become new again if they’re preserved the right way and the right planets are aligned in nostalgic retrograde.

River Park turns 50 this year. Its 518 units — 384 of which are condominiums and 134 of which are townhouses, including 80 barrel roofs — form a quiet concrete courtyard behind the gates of Fourth Street SW. Half a century ago, the city was trying to revitalize the Southwest Waterfront, and part of the solution was River Park. It worked and it didn’t; things changed and they didn’t. The future never quite happened and is already past.

Layers of history

In Southwest D.C., history is layered upon itself. It can be measured architecturally — waterfront shanties becoming tall, concrete high-rises, each construction representing another period in the quadrant’s history. It was settled by Europeans in the 17th century and rose to a commercial center in the 19th. But as ports became less vital, the area flagged. By the 1950s, the (mostly white) wealthier residents had fled to the cooler, less buggy Northwest. Southwest had grown crowded with alley shacks and was viewed as a visual and economic disaster. A Redevelopment Land Agency survey in 1951 subjectively declared that only 4 percent of the residential buildings were in “good” condition; the others were “obsolete” or “blighted.”

City and federal officials argued that a neighborhood abutting the Capitol should reflect the prestige of the Capitol. In the spring of 1954, they set about tearing down 4,800 buildings, displacing 23,000 residents and enraging as many or more.

The construction was seen as landmark urban redevelopment, and it laid the foundation for the complicated discussions we have about such neighborhood transformations today. The case study of Southwest made its way through the court system; oral arguments were erected then demolished. One wound up in the Supreme Court. In Berman v. Parker , the court upheld the government’s right to forcibly purchase private property. When all was said and done, 99 percent of the existing structures in the Southwest project area had been steamrolled.

In their places, modernist buildings flourished.

Up went Tiber Island, blocky and brick, and its visual twin, Carrollsburg Square. Up went Capitol Park, with its sliding doors and lattice balconies. Up went Town Center Plaza, designed by I.M. Pei. Up went River Park.

An architect named Charles Goodman designed it. He’d come from Chicago, but he settled into designing government buildings in the federal city. Goodman did the original terminal at Reagan National Airport, making it an open, airy space that could have transformed waiting in an airport into a surprisingly pleasant experience, if one weren’t waiting in an airport. He designed for private clients, too, through a firm he kept small enough to allow him to keep his eye on every project. When someone did something he didn’t like, he got angry eyebrows, a former associate remembers. He didn’t like garages. He tolerated carports. He’s most well known now for Hollin Hills — a neighborhood south of Alexandria where the houses are nestled in trees and flat roofs are held up by walls of glass — but he conceptualized River Park, too. He wanted courtyards. He wanted “human scale,” mixed-size units, a town within a town.

He was looking for the future.

Reynolds Metals got involved in the building. It was looking to showcase aluminum as the preferred roofing material of the latter half of the 20th century, and when it was finished, the creation was topped with a little metal tree perched on top of the development’s apartment high-rise.

The apartments came with multiple bedroom options, and the townhouses came in multiple layouts. All of them had postage-stamp kitchens, tight entryways, enough room for a six-person dining room table, and a surprising amount of storage space for an era that had not yet dreamed of the walk-in closet. All of them had courtyards and back walls composed entirely of windows, through which you could stare, depending on your location in the complex, at the setting or rising sun.

It was 1962.

A diverse community

The first residents of River Park, the pioneers of modernism in a city of sedate three-story federals — what were they looking for? What did the barrel-shaped aluminum roofs say to them about what kind of life they could have if they lived beneath them?

Dottie Cason, 87, is the most senior resident of the community, at least as far as anyone here can remember — she moved in even before Arthuryne Taylor. Her real name is Dorothy, but she couldn’t stand when people neglected the middle syllable, so eventually she shortened it to Dottie and saved herself the irritation. Dottie was a Midwesterner; she grew up in Indiana, but she’d met Francis in Japan, and his career in the military took them around the world. When they first came to Washington, they moved into an apartment at Mayfair Mansions, a red brick compound in Northeast. After they’d lived there for a while, Francis said, “I want to show you something.”

He took her to River Park and showed her the barrel roofs. She laughed. She said: “They look like the tops of bologna containers.”

He said: “I’m going to buy one.”

She said: “Oh, no.”

She said: “It would be different if we were newlyweds, Francis. But we have all of our furniture already.” Their furniture, in a bologna-container house? It just wouldn’t fit. Oh, no.

She compromised: “Give me two weeks to adjust,” she requested, which is all she’d asked for any of the places they’d lived.

He compromised: They didn’t buy a barrel roof. They bought a flat-top instead, still with the aluminum roof, still with the big windows.

The thing about River Park is that all of the people who live here or ever lived here made a considered decision to live here. You have to want it. Living in River Park is thumbing your nose at much of the rest of Washington, at least architecturally, and at preconceived notions of beauty. River Park is not the type of place one ends up by accident.

“It was diverse economically, diverse age-wise, diverse racially — there was this extraordinary mix of diversity that city planners only dream of,” says Fredrica Kramer, a River Park resident of 30 years who has a background in city planning and teaches university courses on urban policy. It was integrated from the very beginning. It was a cooperative, not a condo — one of the first in the area — so residents would have investment in their community. “And all of that was plunked on top of this world-class mid­century architecture. Now the challenge is how to maintain all of that without ossifying.”

The mass development that was supposed to save Southwest in the 1950s and 1960s never quite worked; what had originally been perceived as a grand revitalization eventually came to be seen as a lesson in insensitive planning. The neighborhood became a paradox. There were walking paths but nowhere to walk, shop, eat. There was modern architecture that started to look old.

Fifty years passed for Dottie Cason in the enclave of River Park. The community went from young singles and couples to young families, to back again, and then back again. Francis died in 2002.

Her living room hasn’t changed in decades: a sleek blond coffee table with tapered legs, a conglomeration of low-backed chairs, waiting for Don and Megan Draper to sink into them after hosting a party.

Without her having to touch anything, it’s become cool again — the living room, the neighborhood, the whole aesthetic.

On a recent weekday evening, the Georgetown location of the high-end furniture store Design Within Reach overflows with Charles Goodman acolytes who have come to listen to a panel discuss the philosophy of the architect. It’s hosted by Michael Shapiro, a local real estate agent who specializes in mid-century modern houses. Some of the attendees are long-term residents of Hollin Hills or another of Eastman’s constructions. Some of them are young couples trying to go back in time.

Not for everyone

It’s a sunny afternoon, a Saturday.

The Starbucks corner of the renovated Safeway is crowded, and the rest of the store is empty. The Z Burger across from the Waterfront Metro opened a few months ago, finally, with 70 different kinds of milkshakes and tables outside with red umbrellas. Down the street, right on the water, a mammoth project called the Wharf is afoot. It’s supposed to include walkable piers, cafes, a hotel, mixed-use development, a cozy artisanal feel in the middle of the city.

A few blocks away, under a barrel roof, Mike Wolf watches a hockey game on television while his wife, Sarah, plays with their dog and they explain how they came to live in this house.

They’d been interested in this neighborhood for awhile, wanting to live near the water, knowing the prices were good.

“We waited,” Sarah says. “Waited and waited. We had our heart set on the barrel.”

This is the present of the barrel roofs: Mike and Sarah Wolf — he, 30, a government wonk; she, 29, an interior designer. Their barrel-roof house has dark wood floors and fluffy white carpets, glass tabletops and strategic furniture layouts that make the space seem larger than it is. On the lowest level, there’s a guest suite with crisp linens; upstairs there’s the master bedroom and bright, airy barrel-roof ceiling.

They love it. They know it’s not for everyone.

“We did meet that one guy —” Sarah starts.

“He went crazy for it.”

“Well. He was German.”

The Wolfs are one of several young couples who live here now, who moved in with visions of an American dream that didn’t include picket fences but clean lines and old modern.

To live under a barrel roof in Southwest is to live in a building of some historical import. Some, not a lot — not compared with the White House or the other residences one could inhabit in Washington.

It is also to live in a time between times, bridging now and then. To sleep under an extraterrestrial cylinder of aluminum, waiting for what comes next, wondering if it’s already happened.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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